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TIFF TIFF juror Jia Zhangke on meeting his idol, Martin Scorsese

Chinese director Jia Zhangke wowed U.S. director Martin Scorsese with his 1997 debut film Xiao Wu.

LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

By this point, Jia Zhangke is practically synonymous with the Toronto International Film Festival. Since his visionary 1997 debut feature Xiao Wu, TIFF has screened each of the Chinese director's works, and earlier this year presented a retrospective of his incendiary filmography. This year, Zhangke is doing triple duty: He'll be presenting his latest film, Mountains May Depart; sitting on the festival's inaugural Platform jury; and promoting his new book, Jia Zhangke Speaks Out, available in English for the first time. Here, in an exclusive excerpt to The Globe and Mail, Zhangke recalls meeting his idol, Martin Scorsese.

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Information on filmmaking was hard to find in 1996. We had a lot of respect for the masters, but to us they were all unapproachable and mysterious. To us Chinese film students at the time, Martin Scorsese was like a shining star, transcendent and inaccessible. I brought Unknown Pleasures to the Cannes Film Festival in 2002, and Scorsese was the head of the jury for the shorts program. When I heard that he was around, I was thrilled and was hoping to run into him.

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One evening at a festival dinner, I heard a big commotion outside, and then a petite older man entered the room. He attracted a big crowd, and his entrance was like that of a governor. I didn't recognize him as he weaved through the crowd to search for his seat. My Japanese producer elbowed me and said, "That's Martin Scorsese!" All of a sudden, Scorsese was next to us and I stood up to shake his hand and I told him that I am Chinese. By then, people had flocked to him from all directions. I observed that he held eye contact with everyone who came to him, and he took time to respond. When I was in front of him, he said "China" and "Great Wall Hotel." I repeated "Great Wall Hotel" in English. He explained that he was in Beijing in the eighties, and he stayed at the "Great Wall Hotel." That was our first encounter. After that, he was swamped and was taken away for other matters.

One day after I came back from Cannes, I was awakened by a fax. I picked it up and was surprised to find that it was from Scorsese. It was written, "We met at Cannes, but our meeting was cut short. My assistant told me afterward that you are the director of Xiao Wu. I saw Xiao Wu and I liked it very much. I didn't realize who you were at the time and didn't get a chance to chat with you. If you happen to be in New York, please call the number below and we can meet again." Our chance came quickly in August when I received an invitation to bring Unknown Pleasures to the New York Film Festival. I sent Scorsese a fax telling him when we would be in town. He replied promptly saying that he was busy editing Gangs of New York, but he would find the time to meet with us.

The hub of the New York Film Festival is Lincoln Center. Ken Jones, who was on the programming team, came to find us. I got to know him in 1999 at the San Francisco International Film Festival when he was a member of the jury. He honoured Xiao Wu with the Best Picture award and handed Scorsese a video copy of the film, as he was also Scorsese's assistant. That's how Scorsese got the chance to see my film. Since then, Scorsese has introduced Xiao Wu to different people, including Steven Spielberg, and has spoken about it at college lectures. It is interesting to me that there doesn't seem to be a barrier between commercial films and art films in America – Spielberg and Scorsese both came from an experimental film background.

We arrived at Scorsese's office building and entered a crowded elevator without a word. His tall assistant was showing us the way. I looked up to see him chuckling at me, and I felt a bit uneasy. I turned around only to see Scorsese right next to me. We broke into laughter and my anxiety dissipated instantly.

We entered Scorsese's office to find a table of snacks. It was like visiting an elder when I was a little boy. We sat down and Chinese tea was prepared. He had bought the biscotti particularly for us and urged us to try some. That was when I really felt like I was visiting an elder and not meeting about films. He kept smiling at us, like he was in the company of children.

We started our conversation on Xiao Wu. I thought he would start from a professional angle, but he asked if I knew why he liked the film. I thought that maybe the social stratum and situation of my characters were similar to his early works. He said that I was half right. He had an uncle who really resembled my character. This uncle worked in Little Italy and Scorsese once went to him asking for an opportunity to make some money. He was told to come back the next day, and when he did, he was given an address and a gun. His uncle wanted him to collect a bad debt. He told me he was trembling with the gun in his hand. Luckily he did not turn into a debt collector, or America would have lost a film director to the Mafia. He thought Wang Hongwei's portrayal of Xiao Wu in the film was very close to his uncle and found him very endearing.

When you have become an established director, it can be difficult to revert back to being an ordinary member of the audience. But that did not happen to Scorsese. When he discusses filmmaking with you, he doesn't comment on complicated mise en scène techniques or narrative structures but about his uncle and his past. He could be totally immersed in a film, but he could also come right out of it.

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Excerpted with permission from Jia Zhangke Speaks Out by Bridge21 Publications, LLC. (This translation by Alice Shih is published by arrangement with Peking University Press, Beijing, China.)

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